Public worried that aerial robots could violate privacy rights of Americans
States across the country are drafting laws to keep the use of surveillance drones in check as public concern amps up over the federal government's use of the aerial robots.
That concern has resulted in a coalition of liberals and conservative-minded libertarians concerned about privacy rights. They are pushing back against law enforcement and drone-industry advocates who say unmanned, unarmed aircrafts are a useful public safety tool.
Forty-three states have enacted or proposed almost 100 drone-related bills and resolutions in the past year, with most aimed at regulating and restricting how they're used, and who can use them, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Seven such bills so far have been enacted, with legislation passed in Hawaii and Illinois awaiting a gubernatorial signature. But with drone bills in many state legislatures still being debated, more are expected to be signed into law this year or next.
The flurry of legislative activity was prompted by last year's FAA Reauthorization Act passed by Congress, which orders the Federal Aviation Administration to develop regulations for the testing and licensing of drones for commercial and local and state government uses -- including police -- by 2015.
Public anxiety over drones was stoked last week, when outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller told a Senate panel his agency uses them to spy on specific targets within the United States. He didn't elaborate on who or what the targets are, but said drones are used domestically in a "very limited" fashion.
The state-level bills are varied, ranging from measures requiring search warrants for law enforcement's use of drones, exceptions for their use in the case of emergencies, the prohibition of weaponized drones, and even bills dealing with animal hunters.
At least three states, North Carolina, Utah and Virginia, have called for the investigation of -- or expressed worry over -- the authorized use of drones against Americans by the federal government.
Yet the underlining theme of most of the legislation is concern that drones could violate the privacy rights of Americans.
Christopher Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, argues that law enforcement agencies should be required to secure warrants for all drone work.
"We need a system of rules to ensure that Americans can enjoy the benefits of this technology without bringing our country a large step closer to a 'surveillance society' in which every move is monitored, tracked, recorded and scrutinized by the authorities," Calabrese told the House Judiciary Committee.
Commercial drone advocates tout their potential widespread benevolent uses -- from fighting wildfires to crop dusting to Hollywood film making to search and rescue purposes.
"There are lot of misconceptions out there, there's a lot of education that needs to take place at the state [legislature] level," said Mario Mairena, government relations manager for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an industry trade group.
And not all states have taken a regulatory or adversarial approach to drones. Lawmakers in Nevada, Ohio, Texas and Washington have pushed bills to encourage the development of drone technology in their states.
Mairena refuted the notion that drones used domestically would lead to an Orwellian "Big Brother" state.
"We feel that the U.S. Constitution has protected individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures for over the past 200-plus years, so there's no reason to think the courts won't be able to handle this new technology coming into the civil and commercial markets," he said.
But love or loathe them, drones are set to be permanent fixtures in the American skies, as the FAA estimates that about7,500 small commercial and local/state governmentunmanned aircraft will be licensed to fly by 2018.